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The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes, 1937-1942

By Dr Fabio De Ninno

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting short blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.

During the Second World War, sea power was the only way to fight on a truly global scale. The Tripartite powers were aware of this, and this explains the centrality of naval cooperation in their military relations. Research has widely explored naval and military contacts between Germany and Japan. Nonetheless, Fascist Italy also had a role in the military contacts between the three powers, and in its Navy, the Regia Marina, at least from 1937, hopes grew to cooperate with the Japanese Navy against Britain, to put its global position under pressure.

After the Mediterranean crisis of 1935-36 and the formation of the Rome-Berlin Axis on 1 November 1936, Japan was considered in the Italian naval strategic calculations as a friendly power, and cooperation already started during the Second London Naval Conference. The next step was the Italian signature to the Anti-Comintern Pact on 8 November 1937. At that time, the Chief of the Navy, Domenico Cavagnari, argued that friendly relations with Japan ‘could exercise a decisive influence’ in case of war with the western powers. Coordination with the Japanese could relieve the pressure in the Mediterranean and open the possibility of cooperation in the Indian Ocean for cruiser and submarine warfare. The Kriegsmarine also shared these expectations.

A British destroyer preparing to take the Italian submarine GALILEO GALILEI in tow after it was captured in the Gulf of Aden by the trawler HMT MOONSTONE. The submarine's periscope was spotted and an attack was made with depth charges which forced it to the surface. The submarine was then captured. (Source: © IWM (A 109))

During 1938, the Italian naval attaché in Tokyo negotiated with the Japanese navy to establish a ‘neutrality agreement’. The project envisaged that in the case that one country went to war with Britain, the other would mobilise its fleet to block part of the Royal Navy in its waters. The project also foresaw the possibility of planning joint operations. In autumn 1938, a Japanese naval mission visited the Italian naval bases and shipyards, but the Italians dismissed Japanese claims about their naval tactics, while the Italian fleet made little impression on the visitors. The Japanese were also willing to buy mines and equipment for submarines from Italy. Like other westerners, the Italian Naval officers thought that the Japanese were good only in copying Western developments and refused access to Italian factories: curiously, this ban was still active in 1943. These diplomatic contacts were part of a more general effort to sign an alliance between Italy, Germany, and Japan. However, in 1939, talks about the ‘neutrality agreement’ were set aside by the Japanese government, despite the availability of the two Axis powers.

The outbreak war in Europe and Africa changed the scenario. In the second half of 1940, Germany was triumphant on the European continent, while Italy was on the verge of collapse. Regarding possible cooperation with Japan, the most significant defeat suffered by the Italians was the fall, in June 1941, of the last port on the Red Sea, which ended the possibility for Regia Marina to deploy naval forces in the Indian Ocean without Japanese logistical support.

The signing of the Tripartite Pact in September 1940 and the Tokyo accords of December 1940, marked the shift of the three powers towards a full military alliance. In each of the Tripartite Capitals were to be established military commissions to study future military cooperation, to exchange information and prepare future operational planning, in case Japan joined the war. Japan returned into Italian strategic calculation for a naval war against Britain.

Intelligence exchanges began during the end of 1940, but both the German and Italian navies rejected the possibility to share common codes with Tokyo. In spring of 1941, a Japanese military mission arrived in Europe to discuss of naval matters with the Italian and German counterparts. The Japanese, under the leadership of Admiral Nomura, visited Italian naval bases and shipyards and asked about their current Italian experience in the war. Italians were interested in night fighting techniques and carrier doctrine, although they branded the information received as ‘generic and superficial’. The Japanese instead got the impression that the Italians poorly managed their naval war and, according to Italian reports, considered the country interesting ‘more from an artistic and touristic point of view’.

The military commission of Rome started to operate in the late spring of 1941. Admiral Katsuo Abe, chief for the Japanese delegation, and the Admiral Alberto Lais, chief of the commission and a member of Supermarina (the Italian Naval High Command), met regularly. They discussed how to coordinate naval strategy against the British Empire. Italians are especially interested in sending submarines in the Indian Ocean. In November 1941, with the war with western powers looming at the horizon, Abe asked Lais how the Regia Marina planned to wrest control of the Eastern Mediterranean and Suez. The Regia Marina had no capability to project itself into the Eastern Mediterranean, again making little impression on their allies.

After the start of the war in the Pacific, Supermarina expected that pressure exercised by the Japanese on the British Empire could be decisive in turning the tide of the war. If the Japanese took Singapore, then the Axis forces could attempt to occupy Suez and push into the Indian Ocean to choke the British position in that area. Supermarina put the few Italian units in the Far East under the control of the Kaigun, hoping that the Japanese in exchange could send submarines to operate against the enemy shipping lanes in the Western Indian Ocean. However, Japanese long-range submarines capable of running that area were few and concentrated along the US West Coast.

The Japanese advances in the Southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore produced a sort of ‘cascade effect’ also on the Axis naval position: Rome (and Berlin) at least perceived this. The Italian Navy was increasingly confident that now the Tripartite could launch a global assault on the enemy sea-lanes. The Japanese guarantees fueled Italian expectations that establishing a naval contact with the Axis via the Indian Ocean was a priority. In April 1942, the raid of the Japanese Fleet against Ceylon seemed to anticipate further projection in the area, while the Japanese dismissed the British occupation of the naval base of Diego Suarez in Madagascar in May 1942 as unimportant. The Italians envisaged the possibility to send the largest number of their submarines in the Indian Ocean to attack enemy shipping that was resupplying British forces in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected.

The crew of the Imperial Japanes Navy submarine I-8 at Brest, c. June 1943. (Source: Wikimedia)

At this point, practical cooperation would have needed a political instrument to work. The only suitable seats were the Military Commissions. However, in March 1942, the three powers agreed that ‘[T]he commissions’ activity must […] act only at the margins of the political and military conduct of the war’. Even the exchange of information and intelligence not worked. Supermarina had to follow the official bulletin of the Imperial General Headquarters to obtain details of Japanese naval losses: this explains why the Japanese defeat at Midway never appears in the Italian reports.

During summer 1942, the stalemate at El-Alamein and the possibility that British 8th Army might mount a counteroffensive made it urgent for the Axis to attack the enemy supply lines. At the end of August, Abe personally assured Mussolini that submarines were intensifying operations in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, between August and November, the Submarine Squadron 8 was dispatched in the Western Indian Ocean, sinking 60,000 tonnes of ships. The Italians and the Germans proposed again to send their submarines to cooperate with the Japanese, asking for the necessary logistical support. Tokyo refused, arguing that Japanese units had to operate alone to avoid incidents with the Axis units.

By October, also the Japanese submarine forces lost their ability to operate in that area, due to the more urgent requirements of submarines in the South Pacific, caused by the high level of attrition suffered in the naval operations around Guadalcanal. In November, under the growing pressure of Montgomery’s offensive in North Africa and with the Operation TORCH underway, finally Tokyo allowed the Axis submarines to resupply in Indonesia. It was too late. With the Allies wrestling the control of the Mediterranean and the growing possibility of an invasion of the Italian mainland, there was no utility of diverting units to the Indian Ocean. Only two Italian submarines reached that area during 1943, and only a few Italian merchantmen during the entire war reached Japan, violating the Allied blockade. All these aspects reflected the widening gap between the Tripartite and Allied Naval power, with the first now reduced to three different regional dimensions, more than a global one, marking the end of Italian expectations started in 1937.

The history of the Italian strategic hopes regarding naval cooperation with Japan confirms how much the Tripartite alliance was hollow, and their naval cooperation reluctant. It also shows that Tripartite Naval power was limited by structural causes: geography and the limitations of its navies. However, other reasons also hampered the cooperation: nationalistic attitude and some degree of racism. All these aspects probably reflected the more general limits of the Fascist powers and their way to wage war as much on the sea as on land.

Dr Fabio De Ninno is a Research Fellow at the University of Siena. His primary fields of study are Italian Naval and Military History in the period between the two World Wars and the Fascist regime. His research focus on the political role of Regia Marina, relationship between naval élites and government, Navalism, History of Technology and Social History of the Navy. He is the author of the book I sommergibili del fascismo (2014) and his next volume Fascisti sul mare, a history of the Italian Navy during the interwar period, will come out next September.

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